It only took The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger six years to release the duo's — which goes by The GOASTT, for short — first record.
That might be confusing to anyone who's listened to either of The GOASTT's first two releases, an acoustic album and an EP from 2010 and 2011. But "Midnight Sun," released in April 2014, is The GOASTT's first "proper record," according to musician Sean Lennon, who makes up one-half of the sonic duo with his girlfriend, Charlotte Kemp Muhl.
It's impossible to listen to the record without hearing the influence of Lennon's parents, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. But he doesn't shy away from his lineage; he sees music as a chance to honor it.
Lennon talked to 77 Square about the privileges of collaborating with loved ones and his favorite aspects of "Midnight Sun." He also graciously answered a "dad" question.
77 Square: Are you basking in the glow of the new album right now?
It's actually so rainy right now in New York, if you could see it, there's nothing glowing at all. We’re playing Letterman tomorrow. It’s a good time of year to tour America, because the weather’s starting to get nice. I don't like to drive around in the winter — there are so many situations where we've gotten snowed off the road.
You'll be especially happy to visit Madison in the spring, then. So — I've read that this was a much more intentional record than your previous GOASTT releases.
The real truth is that this, for us, is the first album. What is known as our first record was really just a bunch of guitar demos. We always wanted to record those songs as fully realized with drums and bass and guitar and everything, but when we were doing that, our manager was like, 'Look, you should put out this acoustic demo version … because it’s so charming.'
("Acoustic Sessions") is, 'Meet the GOASTT.' It’s us writing songs with a guitar on the bed, the two of us. We thought we were going to follow it up right away with the electronic record, but then we got asked to do Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon … and we wound up touring for about a year and got offered this big tour in France for this big French pop star, Matthieu Chedid. We had to put together some kind of EP; we needed to have some kind of merch to sell other than just our record. We never intended that ("La Carotte Bleue") to be an album, either.
Actually, this record ("Midnight Sun") for us is our first proper record, our first that is fully intentional and has all of our thought and purpose behind it.
With so much time to think about intent and purpose, what did you aim to create with this record?
It wasn't so much that we thought about it, as it was what it was going to be overall. It’s hard to think of things in broad terms like that. We tend to be more myopic and work on it one song at it a time. We probably had 35, 40 songs recorded fully for this album. We picked the ones that worked together best as a cohesive whole. It wasn't until the end sequencing until we realized what the real personality of the album was going to be. Some songs we really loved, but we had to leave them off because they didn't fit into the overall experience. In a way you don’t know what the overall record will be until you sequence.
There’s a lot happening on this album — some social commentary, some allusion to childhood fears. Do you have a favorite story on it?
It’s hard to say. People say it all the time, but it is like picking a favorite child. We love (all of) our songs.
In terms of story and narrative, I think I like “Don’t Look Back Orpheus” a lot. We’ve always really loved the Greek mythology, and that story of Orpheus being the first and greatest guitar player or lute player, the first musician. He was this magical musician god. He was the Johnny B. Goode, the Jimi Hendrix, the Ziggy Stardust of ancient Greece.
We had the keyboard Charlotte bought called the Calliope — it’s an air-powered organ. Calliope happens to be the name of Orpheus’s mother. We were able to make this story and have Calliope playing over it, which we felt was fun and cool. And our keyboard player, Jared Samuel, played a really beautiful organ solo.
Are there things you got to do, instrumentally, that you're excited about?
We collect instruments. I’ve been collecting synthesizers and toy keyboards since I was pretty young, since I first started touring when I was 18. Charlotte and I together have acquired a lot of weird instruments — organs, keyboards, a vibraphone and a xylophone. We just love sounds. We have a glass harmonica, which is made of a bunch of glass disks that spin when you touch it with water. We like to experiment with different instruments and sounds. I play clarinet a little bit, and musical saw. There’s a lot of different sounds on the record that were really fun to make.
What’s the partnership like between you and Charlotte? How do you approach songwriting together?
There’s not really one way we approach songwriting. A lot, we’d write with an acoustic guitar on the bed, the traditional way with a piano or acoustic guitar. But then others, when we’re in the studio, we’ll come up with musical ideas in the studio. Songs like that, they’re written while you’re recording them — “Too Deep,” “Xanadu” came to us while we’re in the studio. Some are less traditional, you’re jamming a bunch of musical ideas.
This album, your work with Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, is a collaboration with your romantic partner. You've directed and produced your mother’s work, too. What’s it like, collaborating on music and art with people who are so close to you?
Obviously, working with people that are your family or that you’re very close with, it can be difficult, but I don’t really know how to do it any other way. I've always worked with people who are my family. My first solo record was with Yuka Honda from Cibo Mato, and we were dating at the time. Everyone I've ever been in a band with or made a record with has been someone I've been friends with, or a girlfriend.
I think it’s a privilege, I guess, that I've always been lucky enough to choose who I play with and who I work with, and I tend to work with people who I’m very close with.
I wanted to be the one interviewer who surprised you and didn't ask a ‘dad’ question, but I don’t think I can do it.
(Laughs) It’s OK.
What, from each of your parents, do you hear on this record?
I think the place that I started from, my baseline of music, is the Beatles and my mom’s solo records. That’s the first music I listened to. I used to sleep on the floor on the studio when they were making “Double Fantasy,” the album my parents made together. That’s the first music to me. That’s sort of like the Bible for music, for Sean. I hear a lot of it (in my music).
I’m sort of a Yoko Ono scholar. I know all of her lyrics, all of her songs. That’s why I think I’m in a good position to be a producer for her records.
I hear a lot of my mom in my music, and a lot of my dad in my music. I can’t put it any other way. I don’t try to hide it. The whole reason I play music is because I love my parents.